Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has made data a vital component of education reform with the commitment to help states refine and expand what they have in place.26 To be useful, data systems need to be “learner-centered” rather than “institution-centered,” according to Education Sector.27 Data systems should move away from compliance with federal reporting and expand to provide actionable information that enables teachers, students, and families to set goals, track progress, and take specific actions to promote learning and achievement. Furthermore, a data system that begins in early childhood creates a pathway focusing on the trajectory toward college and career readiness.
A data pathway provides families with facts and figures about children’s development and learning from early childhood through young adulthood so that they are on the right track to graduation and college and career preparation. The data can be used for short-term, (e.g. helping a child increase vocabulary) and long-term (e.g. monitoring a child’s progress across grade levels to be on track for high school graduation within four years) goals. This pathway consists of concise and simple data that families can easily access and understand as they relate to school expectations, academic standards, and continuous improvement. Additionally, the information has to be actionable: families turn to data to guide their child’s learning goals and to avail themselves of school and community resources that can enrich student knowledge or address learning challenges (see Textbox 4 on next page).
Arizona’s Creighton Elementary School District has nine K–8 schools serving 6,800 students; 93% are on free and reduced-price lunch, and 45% are English-language learners. The district organizes Academic Parent–Teacher Teams as an alternative to the traditional parent–teacher conference.
In three group meetings throughout the year, teachers share with parents aggregate and individual student performance data. Each parent receives a folder with his or her child’s data and learns how to set parent–student academic goals, interpret individual benchmark assessment data and quarterly assessments, and understand the child’s standing in relation to the entire class. Teachers model reading and math skills and parents are able to practice before applying them at home. Parents also participate in one individual parent–teacher meeting to review performance data.
Although teachers were at first hesitant to coach parents, they now welcome their new teaching partners. The pilot in 12 classrooms has grown nearly seven-fold after one year. Parent attendance averages 92%, higher than in regular conferences. Maria Paredes, the Director of Community Education, claims that the parent–teacher teams focus on purposeful communication that demands parents’ engagement and measurable accountability. Parents love this challenge.i
i Paredes, M. C. (2010), Academic Parent–Teacher Teams: Reorganizing Parent–Teacher Conferences Around Data.FINE Newsletter 2(3). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Family Research Project. Retrieved from http://www.hfrp.org/CreightonAPPT
Creating a data pathway demonstrates in concrete and practicable ways the key elements of a reinvented framework of family engagement:
Family engagement is a shared responsibility: Through data sharing, school districts and schools are responsible for communicating student performance with families. Beyond providing access to data, schools also provide training and assistance to ensure that families grasp the meaning of the data so that they can partner with teachers to take action and support a student’s learning goals.
Family engagementis continuous across a child’s life: As student data become available across grade levels, families are equipped with the information to support academic progress throughout a child’s school years. The data enable them to focus on the trajectory of high school graduation and college and career readiness.
Family engagement cuts across andreinforces learning in the multiple settings where children learn: Equipped with data about a student’s learning goals, families are able to direct students to learning resources such as afterschool and homework-help programs. School districts that are sharing data with families are also providing them with tips and tools, often through web-based formats, so that parents can help their children at home.
Data sharing with families can transform the way family engagement is organized, helping to keep the focus on those activities that align with student academic progress and achievement. Rather than being a checklist of activities, family engagement is systemic and linked to specific educational goals. Rather than being an “add-on” to what teachers already do, family engagement is integrated into teaching and learning by providing teachers with a partner who supports and monitors student learning. Rather than being activity driven and dependent on time-limited funding, family engagement is more likely to be sustained when it is outcome-oriented and tied to the instructional goals for a student, with specific benchmarks across the school year. The power of data as a tool for student learning and meeting school goals is illustrated in Textbox 5 (next page) about the Washoe County School District.
TRANSFORMING LOW-PERFORMING SCHOOLS
The need for systemic family engagement is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in the efforts to turn around the nation’s lowest-performing schools. Both Congress and the Administration have trained their collective eyes on the bottom 5 percent of America’s public schools and have dedicated funding streams and programmatic initiatives to facilitate turnaround efforts.28 Yet these efforts have revealed some hard truths: we still do not fully understand what causes these schools to slide into such a deep decline or why their low performance remains so entrenched, despite decades of various reform efforts.29 Furthermore, evidence is scant for turnaround success at scale,30 suggesting that there is a great need for new and innovative solutions.
What is clear is that there is no one way to address the problems of low-performing schools, no “magic bullet” approach that will work across all grades and all settings. There is, however, emerging evidence of some of the critical elements that must be in place if turnaround efforts are to work, one of which is strong, strategic FSCE.31 Furthermore, it is important to recognize that many low-performing schools exist in extremely disadvantaged communities in which parents themselves have likely had negative schooling experiences. This makes it even more imperative that schools and districts strengthen their capacity to meaningfully reach out to and engage families, understand the barriers to involvement, and partner with families and other community members to enlist their help in revitalizing struggling schools. Sustainable change in low-performing schools is most likely to occur when it is facilitated and supported by the families and communities who have the biggest stake in the outcomes of such efforts.
Washoe County School District in Nevada is working to raise its 56% high school graduation rate through a multi-pronged strategy that includes active family engagement. Although it is essential for parents to know about high school graduation requirements, the district was not effectively communicating this information with parents, many of whom are immigrants and unfamiliar with the U.S. school system and education terminology.
Working with technical support from the Nevada Parent Information and Resource Center (PIRC), Parent Involvement Facilitators (PIFs) in the district’s high schools reach out to and train parents about using the online student data system. Typically, these are parents of students eligible for the free and reduced-price lunch program and who are Limited English Proficient. The PIRC training is targeted toward families who have never used a computer before or do not have internet access at home.
Workshop facilitators train parents about graduation requirements and how to interpret student data so that their children are on track in terms of attendance, grades, and credit accumulation. D’Lisa Crain, Administrator for Washoe’s Department of Family–School Partnerships, says that “Families leave these computer workshops empowered from knowing how to access their student’s data and where to go for help if there is a problem with attendance or grades.” They also know where to find computer kiosks in the 96 community locations that display special banners.i
i Crain, D. (2010). “For the first time I understand what it takes for my own child to graduate.” FINE Newsletter 2(3). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Family Research Project. Retrieved from http://hfrp.org/WashoeCounty
Engaging Families and Communities in Turnaround Efforts
Most of the existing turnaround efforts focus on some combination of instructional/curriculum reforms, changes in staffing, intensive professional development, and reorganizations of the structure of the school. Efforts to engage families complement these elements of turnaround movements, helping to strengthen instructional improvements and staff development by increasing families’ knowledge of academic goals and demonstrating how they can partner with school staff to reinforce learning in the home and in the larger community. One study of successful turnaround efforts among eight failing Chicago schools reported that parent engagement was not only a core element in helping to dramatically improve student achievement, but: “The results clearly reveal that the existing staff and parents…form a large and untapped reservoir of energy, ideas, and commitment that is ready to transform the quality of their schools, and do it quickly.”32 Yet engaging families and communities doesn’t always come naturally to school personnel, who often lack training and preparation for family partnerships, or who might be wary of reaching out to parents if most of their school–family interactions are problem-focused, thus creating tension between families and school staff. This points to the need for more innovative approaches to bringing families and schools together to identify common goals and learn how to collaborate to improve student learning.
Informed advocacy can be a very effective mechanism for change by empowering parents to demand excellence in local public schools; however, families need to know how to identify high-quality schooling so they can understand which areas need improvement, the types of reforms that best meet the needs of the students, and how to assess the impact of enacted reform measures. Families’ abilities to understand and use data on school performance can help focus their advocacy efforts, and for those parents who might not be aware of the school’s conditions or the need for change, community organizations and advocates can act as intermediaries to both inform and empower parents to demand excellence from their children’s schools.
Effective FSCE in low-performing schools often must begin with intensive efforts to rebuild trust and promises of accountability (factors that other communities can sometimes take for granted) given longstanding dynamics of miscommunication and distrust between these schools and their surrounding communities. Community and faith-based groups serve as a bridge between schools and families, and are often able to act as intermediaries with families who feel alienated from the school or who are simply unaware of improvement efforts and how they can contribute to the process by becoming more actively involved in school reforms. These organizations help to facilitate improvements in school–community relationships and foster a sense of trust and collaboration among families and school staff, providing the necessary foundation on which to build meaningful home–school partnerships.
Identifying Critical Junctures in Achievement Drop-offs
While low-performing schools span all grade levels, the high school “dropout factories”—where only a small minority of students graduate on time—have received the most attention. A number of studies have found that effective family engagement is a crucial factor in keeping students engaged in their education as they progress through the middle and high school years.33
One of the key issues in addressing the problems of low-performing schools is identifying the critical juncture points at which achievement tends to decline, and targeting intensive efforts at those periods. For instance, research has shown that the ninth grade is the most critical year for putting students on the path towards on-time graduation and post-high school success.34 Targeting efforts toward this time period—including the transition into ninth grade—helps to catch attendance, behavioral, and academic problems before they become entrenched and threaten students’ ability to successfully navigate the requirements and rigors of high school.35 This need to focus on the ninth grade year has further implications for the value of strengthening FSCE efforts, because family engagement tends to drop off as children become adolescents. At this juncture, parents often simultaneously feel less competent about their ability to help with their teen’s academic work and more distanced from—and intimidated by—large, complex high school environments.36 Efforts to provide parents with clear, actionable information about their students’ academic performance, such as the work done by New Visions for Public Schools in New York (see Textbox 6, below), can help break down these barriers and foster productive school–home communication.
In 2007, New Visions for Public Schools (New Visions) was selected by the New York City Department of Education to become a Partnership Support Organization responsible for working with 76 public schools (mostly high schools). New Visions focused its parent involvement efforts on ninth-grade students and families and created both school- and student-level performance data tools and four core ninth-grade college readiness benchmarks that would help communicate critical information to students’ families. The ninth grade benchmarks for each student included attendance rates of 92% over the course of the year, course grades of 80% or higher, completion of eleven or more credits by the end of the year, and passing one or two New York State Regents exams with a score of at least 75%. These benchmarks were widely disseminated to school staff, parents, and students through a parent-friendly publication, Is Your 9th Grader on Track to College?, and at the New Visions “Aiming Higher” parent and train-the-trainer workshops.
The College Readiness Tracker is an additional one-page tool developed as a way for all stake-holders, and especially parents, to quickly and easily determine individual students’ progress in various academic areas as they move beyond ninth grade. To leave school ready for college, students are expected to earn 44 credits in core subject areas, 80% or better in all courses, 92% or better daily attendance average, and 75% or better on 8 Regents exams. The trackers are often mailed with report cards, or distributed at parent–teacher conferences. For the 2010–2011 school year, parents will also be able to access the tracker electronically.i
i Taveras, B., Douwes, C., Johnson, K., Lee, D., & Caspe, M. (2010) New Visions for Public Schools: Using Data to Engage Families. FINE Newsletter 2(2). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Family Research Project. Retrieved from http://www.hfrp.org/NewVisions
Enhancing Turnaround Efforts through Data Sharing
Advances in student and school performance data systems and efforts to make such data available and accessible to families are of particular importance in efforts to turn around low-performing schools. Experience has shown that the families of students in high-poverty schools are more likely to need assistance in understanding how to interpret performance data, and in particular, how to act on such information in ways that benefit not only their own child’s achievement, but the performance of the school overall.
The use of data to address the problems of low-performing schools should also move beyond basic report cards that simply chronicle the deficits of the school system. Focusing on negative school performance data can exacerbate the tension and anger that often exist in communities with low-performing schools and work against schools’ and families’ ability and inclination to come together to understand where difficulties lie and how to work together to identify concrete steps to take to improve students’—and thus the schools’—performance. Data sharing in the spirit of building strategic partnerships between families, schools, and communities holds enormous potential in addressing the persistent poor achievement evidenced in low-performing schools.
Engaging families in systemic, integrated, and sustainable ways in turnaround efforts draws on a number of reform areas that impact student achievement: strengthening parents’ ability to support their students’ learning at home, at the school, and in the community; providing opportunities for strategic and collaborative uses of data; and embedding family engagement into professional development and instructional goals so that low-performing schools don’t have to “go it alone,” but rather gain an invested and effective partners in improving student learning—families.